In the early morning hours, just after sunrise, a few fishermen made their way onto snow-covered boats in a picturesque port on the southwestern shore of Penobscot Bay. Though calm, the men knew this would likely be the last day of Maine’s 2013 shrimp season. With easterly winds forecast for the next two days, there would be too few shrimp to bother going out (as it was, on this day the catch would prove to cover the fuel and little more).
Roughly a dozen ground fishing vessels make up Port Clyde’s small fleet, the last remaining fishing fleet between Portland, Maine and the Canadian Border. Port Clyde fisherman Glen Libby, his son Justin, brother Gary, and a few colleagues banded together in 2007 and formed Port Clyde Fresh Catch, (PCFC) the country’s first community-supported fishery using the CSA model. By starting their own small processing facility and selling directly to the public, the fishermen get a better price for their catch and the community can take home fresh sustainably caught seafood at an affordable price.
Working with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland, the fishermen who are partners in Port Clyde Fresh Catch use environmentally friendly gear, such as the experimental Nordmore fish-sorting shrimp grate, that excludes fish, lobsters, and small shrimp. Standard grates, Glen Libby explained, do not let the small shrimp out. He said so far regulators have not adopted the Nordmore design but it is only a matter of time.
Concern about the status of the Gulf of Maine’s shrimp stock and the ability of the resource to sustain high harvest levels will require sustainable fishing methods as well as aggressive management of fisheries and enforcement of rules governing catches.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASFMC), Northern Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), and the Northern Shrimp Technical Committee (NSTC) of the ASFMC provide annual fish stock assessments and an associated total allowable catch (TAC) recommendation to the ASMFC Northern Shrimp Section. The three states (Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts) that make up the Section seek a consensus decision and then set the season accordingly.
Stock Assessments are conducted using scientific models that import stock abundance, mortality, growth rates, size, sex, mixing, etc. data from both trawl surveys and industry landings to project current and updated stock abundances and then propose annual allowable catches. The Technical Committee uses a specific model that was peer reviewed but that many industry members have questioned. As a result, the Department of Marine Resouces engaged the University of Maine to develop an alternative model which will be run side by the side the existing model to ground truth the results. The next shrimp benchmark assessment and peer review is scheduled for this fall so the Section will have the most up to date data as possible before meeting to consider the 2014 TAC.
The harvest rates in both 2010 and 2011 fishing seasons were far greater than anticipated, furthermore, untimely reporting of daily landing receipts (reviewed weekly) to NOAA resulted in emergency actions and shortened seasons. The outcome was an overharvesting of TAC by 14% in 2010 and 48% in 2011.
Maine’s 2013 shrimp season was curtailed by 72 % from 2012 after scientists warned (again) that the shrimp population is at risk because of overfishing and environmental conditions.
Above Average Water Temperatures
“There were lots of factors and some that are not insignificant are environmental conditions,” said Glen Libby. “Warmer water is very bad for shrimp, snow and cold are good. Hopefully this winter’s conditions will be beneficial to a repopulation down the road.”
“There was a time back in the 50’s when ocean temperatures rose comparable to what we have today and the shrimp stock was reduced to a very low level with very little fishing effort,” Libby added.
According to Margaret Hunter, Marine Resource Scientist, Sea Urchin and Northern Shrimp programs, the northern shrimp species in the Gulf of Maine is an arctic/sub-arctic species in the southernmost part of its range here, prefers cold water, and is very responsive to changes in ocean temperature. Hunter wrote me in an email “In the 1950s, when Gulf of Maine waters were warmer than usual, these shrimp were very scarce, and then recovered when waters cooled. Current water temperatures have reached 1950s levels again, and our latest assessment shows a significant reduction in shrimp abundance.”
During the first six months of 2012, sea surface temperatures in the Northeast Shelf Large Marine Ecosystem ( LME extends from the Gulf of Maine to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina) were the highest ever recorded, according to an Ecosystem Advisory issued (two are issued annually) by NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC). Above-average temperatures were found in all parts of the ecosystem, from the ocean bottom to the sea surface and across the region, and the above average temperatures extended beyond the shelf break front to the Gulf Stream.
Northern shrimp abundance in the western Gulf of Maine has declined steadily since 2006. The latest NOAA survey showed a much lower than normal abundance of large females and juveniles, with the remaining males and females being small for their age.
Northern shrimp are located in the cold waters of the Northern Hemisphere. The species is found in Canadian waters and in the northern-most waters of the U.S. The Gulf of Maine is on the southern edge of northern shrimp’s natural distribution. Northern shrimp are hermaphroditic, maturing first as males at roughly 2 ½ years of age and then transforming to females at about 3 ½ years. Female shrimp may live up to five years old and attain a size of up to three to four inches in length.
Spawning takes place in offshore waters during late summer. By early fall, most adult females extrude their eggs onto the abdomen. Egg-bearing females move offshore in late autumn and winter, where the eggs hatch.
I overheard a few fishermen say they had not seen any females with eggs. Wondering if this is normal, I reached out to Terry Stockwell, the current Chair of the Northern Shrimp Section.
“There has been nothing normal about this fishing season,” Stockwell wrote me in an email. “However, one may assume that the deliberate late start of the season allowed for many of the eggs to drop before the fishing season began. That was the recommendation of the (Northern Shrimp)Technical Committee and what the Section intended to enable.”
2013 Maine Shrimp Fishing Season
The 2013 season began January 23 for net fishermen (trawlers), who were allotted about 1.2 million pounds of the harvest. Fishermen who catch shrimp in traps were allowed to set and bait traps on February 3, but the first haul day was February 5. Trap vessels were given a quota of under 200,000 pounds.
I asked Stockwell to explain the late start date set for the 2013 season, considering past shrimp fishing seasons have started in mid to late December.
“This was normal during years of high shrimp abundance before the Section transitioned from using landing days to a hard TAC as a management measure,” Stockwell wrote me in an email. “This transition happened as a result of several back to back years of high CPUE (catch per unit effort) which ran the projected landings well over the Technical Committee’s recommendation for a total catch.”
Who is Shrimp Fishing
Maine’s shrimp fleet is comprised of trawlers and lobster vessels that re-rig for shrimp fishing. In 2012, 174 trawlers and 99 trappers held shrimp fishing licenses in Maine. In 2013, 120 trawlers and 42 trappers. In recent years, shrimp trap fishery has grown, and that growth has garnered the attention of some fishermen who blame lobstermen for the grounds being overfished. The primary complaint being the lobstermen only arrived on the scene when shrimp fishing was flourishing (since about 2009).
According to Glen Libby, lobster vessels have been re-rigging for shrimp fishing since the first Port Clyde shrimp boat went out decades ago.
I asked Libby about the issue of overfishing and the number of Maine Commercial Shrimp Fishing Licenses granted “There are some that advocate limited entry and they would understandably say that there were too many licenses,” said Libby. “Right now no one knows what the right number is for sure and truthfully it is usually controlled by market and stock conditions. This year is an example of that. There were projections of upwards of 600 boats fishing for shrimp but the actual number is far less than that. around 100.”
“The technical committee is currently projecting that the quotas for both the trawl and trap fisheries will not be met, under the current catch rates, until at least the end of March,” Terry Stockwell wrote me in an email. “Catch rates are dropping and many western and mid-cost boats are reporting that they are done for the season.”
In their assessment of the Gulf of Maine shrimp population, scientists recommended having a shrimp-fishing moratorium this winter. It is unknown at this time whether Maine will have a shrimp fishing season in 2014. The Section will not make that decision until November of this year after receiving the updated stock assessment from the Technical Committee. There you have it…
Photos by Sharon Kitchens.